Dodgers are finally looking alive

LOS ANGELES -- There was something going on at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, something that felt strange and weird and vaguely familiar. For the first time on this homestand, for the first time in September, maybe even for the first time in more than a month, the place had a certain life to it, a decent-sized crowd vocal enough to provide a little atmosphere and ambiance as those late-summer, late-afternoon shadows crept across the field and the game itself crept into the 10th and then the 11th innings.

And the best part was that it wasn't just the old ballpark that suddenly sprang to life. The Los Angeles Dodgers did too.

Earlier in the day, the team had been mathematically eliminated from the National League wild-card race. At some point in the near future, perhaps as early as Tuesday and almost certainly by the end of the week, the Dodgers will be eliminated from the NL West race.

Any combination of wins by the San Francisco Giants or San Diego Padres and losses by the Dodgers totaling two will result in the dreaded X being placed next to the Dodgers in the standings.

All that aside, though, these same Dodgers who had appeared to be sleepwalking through games for weeks on end suddenly seemed interested in winning. After falling behind early, 6-1, against the Colorado Rockies, they chipped away gradually, tied the game in the ninth and won it in the 11th, setting off one of those celebrations that used to be fairly common around here. The five-run deficit was the largest the Dodgers have come back from all season.

It wasn't just the younger players and the fringe players, the guys trying to make an impression on the organizational brass in hopes of securing a place on the team next season. It was actually the veterans, the everyday guys, the core of the team with the security of big-money contracts, who seemed to take it up a notch, or several.

Rafael Furcal had two doubles. Matt Kemp had a single, double and his first home run in almost a month. Andre Ethier homered. Ryan Theriot, who came into this game with four hits in his past 25 at-bats, went 2-for-5. And the once-vaunted bullpen, which had sprang so many unexpected leaks this season, delivered seven shutout innings.

The point of all this is that maybe these final two weeks of the Dodgers' season don't have to be sheer drudgery after all. As you have read in this space on several occasions as the team has hovered on the brink of elimination, there is still plenty to play for. Now, it appears the Dodgers might finally be thinking that way too.

One win against the Rockies on the heels of a four-game losing streak doesn't sound like much. But to the Rockies, it was fairly significant. When you're locked in a tight division race, especially a three-team race like the one taking place atop the NL West, every defeat is significant. And what the Dodgers (73-77) learned Sunday is that it feels pretty good to be the team that inflicts one of those significant defeats.

Not as good as showering each other with champagne, as the Dodgers did a handful of times over the past two seasons. But under the circumstances, this is about as good as it gets.

So with that in mind, the Dodgers will welcome another of those three contending teams, the San Diego Padres, who come in for a three-game series starting on Tuesday night. The Padres have lost 17 of their past 24 games, and of their seven wins in that span, three came in a series sweep of the Dodgers at Petco Park a couple of weeks ago when the Dodgers didn't appear to want to be there.

If the Dodgers can carry over the emotion of Sunday's win, the Padres will encounter a different team from the one they basically ran over not so long ago.

After that, the Dodgers will play six of their final nine against the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks, with three more against the Rockies in Denver wedged in between. But even those games with Arizona present an opportunity. The Dodgers can still salvage a .500 record, but they have to go 8-4 in their 12 remaining games to do it. The Dodgers are 10-2 against the Diamondbacks this season.

The Dodgers' playoff hopes are over. Their season isn't. And for the first time in a while on Sunday, it looked as if they understood that.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.